Ferdinando (Nani) Beccalli-Falco apologises: "I'm sick as a dog today. I was bitten by an insect in India last week. I woke up with this bite on my leg, but I had to catch a flight so I just got dressed and ignored it. When I arrived home, I pulled my sock down and had a look and it was like this (he indicates a wound roughly the size of a grapefruit). I've had a terrible fever ever since." This comes about 20 minutes into the interview, 20 minutes in which Italian-born Beccalli-Falco has argued, debated and gesticulated like a man fuelled by a vast source of energy. I remark that he seems very well for somebody so afflicted. "You should see me when I'm not sick," he laughs.
Beccalli-Falco talks with the conviction and rhetorical skill of a politician, so it comes as no surprise that he characterises himself as such. "I'm the company's minister of foreign affairs," he says, in reference to his role as president and CEO of GE's International division. His position at GE puts him in overall charge of all the company's activities outside of the US, which currently account for about half its total sales. He tells me that 2007 will be the first year in which GE's non-US sales exceed its domestic sales. "A big proportion of the growth is coming from consolidated markets - western Europe, Japan, Canada," he says. "But the curve is accelerating because of the emerging markets. Last year our sales reached $31 billion in emerging markets. Our target is $50 billion by 2010."
As the world's second biggest company and one of its most diverse, GE is better placed than many to plug into the astonishing levels of growth in certain parts of Asia, eastern Europe, South America and Africa. But the emerging economies are complicating the global economy as well as enriching it. The rules of business conduct established in the US and western Europe do not hold sway everywhere, and any company planning expeditions to little exploited parts of the world will have to go equipped with humility and an eagerness to learn, as well as pocketfuls of hard currency.
This is a difficult challenge and it is one that Beccalli-Falco speaks of with surprising candour. He talks of the problems of striking deals in China, where, he says, the values of equity and fairness implied in the West's 'win/win' approach to business are replaced by a more naked self-interest. "In China, they have a tendency to think 'win for China, OK for you'," he says. "It makes forming partnerships difficult."
And once deals are struck with the Chinese, you'll need to stick rigidly to your side of the bargain. If you don't, says Beccalli-Falco, you must be prepared to explain yourself. "You sit in front of the minister for rail, who has a big piece of paper on his desk. He says, 'Mr Beccalli-Falco, the last time we met, we agreed this and this. But on this other point, you haven't done as you said - what is your explanation?' If you don't follow the agreement to the letter, they will show you exactly where you didn't follow it and demand you explain yourself."
Nothing wrong with that, you might argue, especially as, by Beccalli-Falco's admission, the Chinese method of doing business gives a level of transparency and certainty that cannot be found in many of the emerging markets. In Russia, for example, "legislation is used to satisfy the needs of the moment". He cites the experience of Shell, which was effectively forced by Moscow to give up its controlling stake in the Sakhalin-II liquid natural-gas project. Unhappy that the project was foreign-owned, the government withdrew Shell's environmental permits, halting work on the project. The impasse was overcome only when Shell agreed to cede control of Sakhalin-II to state gas monopoly Gazprom.
Beccalli-Falco says Shell's experience illustrates the willingness of the Russian government to use whatever means at its disposal to get what it wants. "Shell strikes this deal, then suddenly this environmental legislation is brought up - and to hear Russians speak of environmental legislation makes you suspicious to say the least - Gazprom gets the deal instead and everybody forgets about the environment."
GE experienced its own mini-Sakhalin moment when it attempted to set up a locomotive assembly plant in Russia. Initially, says Beccalli-Falco, the company was strongly encouraged to locate the facility in St Petersburg. It negotiated a deal to buy some land and everything seemed set - but then the difficulties began. The government told GE it would have to develop the facility in partnership with local firm Kolumna.
"We began negotiations with Kolumna and reached some sort of agreement with them," he says. "Then another company called Transmash Holding came in and took over Kolumna, all under the eyes of the state, and the deal collapsed. So we started negotiating with Transmash. Three years went by and then, just when we reached a point of semi-agreement, something else happened to blow the whole thing up again.
"In the end, we approached the government of Kazakhstan to do something there. They welcomed us with open arms and the deal was done in six months."
Beccalli-Falco is visibly exasperated as he tells this anecdote. He is clearly a man with a passion for business - and a tendency to take it very personally. Despite the obvious ambassadorial element to his role as GE's 'minister of foreign affairs', he does not always speak with the diplomacy of an ambassador. This is globalisation, warts and all. But underneath his hard language, you detect a genuine and passionate belief in the power of free trade to improve lives.
When I put it to him that the rate of growth in India, for example, might create huge fissures between the new middle class and those who remain in poverty, potentially unravelling the whole project, he summarily dismisses the suggestion.
"I absolutely don't believe that," he says. "If you go to Bangalore, you will see normal people doing much better now than they did 10 years ago. When I was there last week, I saw these young secretaries and engineers, and they weren't the sons and daughters of Tata or Mittal - they were the sons and daughters of Joe Blow on the street. And if you go further down, the people who now tend the grounds would probably have been begging not so long ago. Society moves in that way - it doesn't make huge jumps."
He is equally contemptuous of the idea that the availability of cheap labour in emerging markets could lead to the impoverishment of workers in Western countries. "When Spain and Ireland joined the EU, everybody thought these countries would decrease the average wages in Europe. And what happened? Precisely the opposite." He says that proposals by some European leaders - most recently France's new president Nicolas Sarkozy - to increase tariffs on imports into the EU are plain "silly". He says: "If intellectual property is breached, don't just impose tariffs - burn the stuff. But if it is good stuff produced under the right kind of conditions, it's just going to make the market more competitive."
Beccalli-Falco's belief in the benefits of competition runs through his own life. His favourite hobby is rally driving (his office is full of photos of him in a race suit and helmet in front of souped-up vehicles), but he informs me that this has gone "a little bit on the wayside" because he does not have time to train properly. What else? "I run every morning," he states proudly, then immediately issues a retraction. "Well, almost every morning. To say 'every morning' is an ambitious lie."
He also swims, skis and reads. "I love reading history - I believe history is the master of men's lives. I'm currently reading A Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin - it's about the creation of the modern Middle East." How about fiction? "Yes. When I'm on a long plane journey and I don't have the energy for Fromkin, I love to read Robert Ludlum, Ken Follett, Wilbur Smith ... Smith is one of the sexiest writers out there. The way he describes Africa is very, very sexy."
These distractions aside, you get the sense that Beccalli-Falco's deepest passions are reserved for his job and the company that has employed him since he left formal education in 1975. When talking about GE, his characteristic plain language is swelled by an unmistakable sense of pride and esprit de corps. At one point, I begin a question by describing GE's latest growth figures as "decent". He quickly jumps in: "If you have an enterprise that is worth £150 billion and grows at 9%, I don't call that decent - I call it pretty damn good."
Fair enough. But back to my question: why, despite GE's impressive rate of growth, have its shares remained stubbornly flat for the past few years? "Because we, like many large corporations, suffer from big-cap syndrome," he says. "There are a lot of companies out there pursuing more aggressive investment strategies than GE, which is a solid, growth-based company. I was talking the other day to somebody at Citicorp, who said that the only thing that's going to make its stocks move is an economic crisis. It's the same with all the big-cap companies - right now our stocks are languishing, but if there was a downturn, everyone would be looking for safety and we'd become attractive again."
GE's flatlining share price has been enough for some commentators to question CEO Jeff Immelt's impact on the company. Immelt took over in 2001 from the legendary Jack Welch. Immelt has attracted praise for his reform of GE's corporate governance and his Ecomagination strategy, which has placed GE among the leading group of large companies to take climate change seriously - but he has yet to prove that being a better corporate citizen means anything to investors.
Beccalli-Falco served under Welch and says he owes most of his career to him, but he is unequivocal in saying that Immelt is better suited to the challenges facing GE in the early years of the 21st century. "With all due respect to Jack, when faced with things like Enron, WorldCom and September 11, he would not have fared as well as he did in his own time. He was a man of the 1980s and '90s," he says, referring to Welch's famously ruthless, profit-obsessed style of management.
Immelt apparently has more time for teamwork than his predecessor. "It's not that Jeff is a wimp," Beccalli-Falco is quick to point out, "but he understands that other people should make certain decisions."
He accepts that GE's culture is demanding, but says that its reputation for toughness is "oversold". He also insists that it is a myth that GE fires the bottom-performing 10% of its employees every year, although his account of the company's management style offers only a slightly watered-down version of this. "There's this idea that we shoot everyone in the bottom 10% every year," he says. "It's not true - we don't shoot people if they make mistakes.
"If somebody is in the bottom 10%, we look at them and ask why this is. It could be that they are not educated properly, in which case we say, 'fine, let's educate them'." But what if somebody remains in the bottom 10%, even after being 'educated'? "Then, sure, we'll look at their position."
Don Sull, associate professor of management practice at London Business School, speaks in tones of reverence about the company's approach to acquisitions and - in particular - divestitures. "Most companies are good at getting in and bad at getting out," said Sull. "GE is very good at getting in and very good at getting out."
I relay the compliment to Beccalli-Falco, who, surprisingly, rejects it. "I'm glad it looks like that," he says, "but no - divesting is a tough process. You tend to love the assets and the people you have, which means you want to hang on to them."
I ask him how much pain it caused GE when it decided in January to rid itself of its plastics division - a true bastion of the company and, historically, a fertile training ground for its future leaders (including himself). "It was very hard. Of the 30 or so people that are part of the corporate executive committee, 17 have been associated with the plastics division for long periods. It's good that people think we make these decisions scientifically and clinically, but I tell you - it was agony."
Agony, perhaps, but also profitable: in May, GE sold the plastics division to Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (Sabic) for $11.6 billion - $1.6 billion above the asking price.
So there you have it: GE may look to all the world like a ruthless corporate machine, hiring and firing at will, acquiring and divesting for fun, but it also has a more sensitive, human side. Up to a point, anyway.
WHO IS NANI BECCALLI-FALCO?
1975: Joins GE in the US
1977: Strategic planning group, GE Plastics Europe, Netherlands
1981: GE Plastics global headquarters, Massacheusetts
1987: Director of marketing, GE Plastics Europe
1990: Managing director, Structure Products Europe
1993: President, GE Plastics Japan
1997: Vice-president and general manager, GE Plastics America
2001: Executive vice-president, GE Capital Services
2002: President and CEO, Europe, Middle East, Latin America and Canada
2005: President and CEO, GE International.